Prospects for Janitor with Mental Health Diagnosis
August 31, 2016 3:50 AM   Subscribe

I have a B.A. in Geography with honors but developed a mental illness following graduation. I am 31 years old and live in southern California. I have a therapist and psychiatrist and take medication. Unfortunately, I have not been able to make friends, have a steady significant other, or build a solid career since developing this diagnosis. I work as a janitor for a school district and volunteer at a mental health center. My question is: should I ever expect to have a full, complete, and "normal" life and career like other people? How do I maximize my opportunities in life and develop a rich and fulfilling existence despite the mental diagnosis that I carry around?

I want to go back to school and further my career so as not to be a permanent janitor but I consider that my mental health issues may get in the way of finishing coursework. I have read many threads on this website about men in their late 30’s, early 40’s, and even 60’s living at home with mom. I don't want to end up this way. I am asking my psychiatrist about HUD housing referrals so that I can get on my own and become independent. I try to push myself out of my comfort zone and life the best life I can.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Is it just that you want to earn more money? Is your goal to live alone? Is your goal to feel more mentally stimulated at work or more fulfilled? I think you need to give us more info on your goals and challenges. What issues is your mental health specifically giving you (follow through/focus/whatever). Your life sounds perfectly fine from your description. You have a decent job and good social life. A huge portion of society is diagnosed with mental illness at some point, so we're going to need more specifics on goals and challenges here.
posted by Kalmya at 5:00 AM on August 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'd address this with your therapist, but I would frame it slightly differently. Something like "Can you tell me how often people with this diagnosis are able to do x/y/z?" I'd follow that question up with "based on what you know about me, what do I need to do to work towards these goals?"

I don't know what your diagnosis is, but I know people with depression and anxiety who hold down steady jobs, bought their own houses, got married and had kids. I have a friend who is bipolar and partnered and has a very interesting career. And that's just the people who have chosen to confide in me - I'm sure I know others.

You could also explore what your options are with regard to completing coursework if something comes up. You might be able to take an incomplete and finish the work later.

Good luck, OP. I hope everything works out for you.
posted by bunderful at 5:00 AM on August 31, 2016 [6 favorites]

As you consider this question and work towards a better life, try to keep in mind how much mental illness can lie to you about what you already have. I have an uncle with a pretty severe mental illness, and he's filled with deep regret about the things he doesn't have -- he wishes he could work, have a family, join the navy, etc -- but doesn't really acknowledge that he actually does a lot of great things -- he has so many friends that you can hardly see him without an appointment, he does volunteer work. It's not everything he wishes his life could be, but it's not the nothing he sees it as, either.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:13 AM on August 31, 2016 [14 favorites]

To get a sense of potential careers you can explore the US Department of Labor's online Occupational Outlook site. Look for occupations that appeal to you, that pay enough for you to live independently, and that are growing in numbers. Check to see if any local public colleges offer the training you'd need. Run it by your therapist.

There used to be people who could help at your local Vocational Rehabilitation office, now most are shut down, but perhaps your therapist knows of a local program that could help you sort all this out.

Best of luck!
posted by mareli at 5:21 AM on August 31, 2016

Of course it's possible. A mental health diagnosis is not a death sentence. Beyond that, it depends on what the specific diagnosis is, and how severe. I have a diagnosis of mild OCD, and I was able to function normally even before seeing a therapist. Obviously, that isn't the case for everyone, though, so we'd need more information to say more.

The big question is, what's holding you back? Is it something actually related to your mental health? And why are you able to hold down a janitor position, but nothing else? Personally, I would think being a janitor would be *harder* than an office job. You're around kids all day, you're constantly being interrupted to do something urgent, and you can't just take a day off. It seems like a lot of work to me. It makes me wonder if you're already capable of more and just holding yourself back.

Try making a list of the skills you use as a janitor, and the skills you think you'll need in a better job. You'll see they overlap a bit.

Is there something specific you want to go back to school for? If not, I don't know if it's a good idea. You should figure out what you want to do before spending money to get there. (If you do know, then go for it.) If you do choose to go back, check in with the school's disability services office. Since you have an actual diagnosis, they should be able to accommodate your mental health issues. I know someone who had to withdraw from school because of bipolar disorder and suicidal ideation, and he was able to make up his coursework after he recovered. Your mental health should not be the reason you choose not to go back to school.

The hardest part of improving yourself in life is persuading an employer to interview/hire you. I haven't fully mastered this yet, so I can't give you much advice, but just keep in mind that this is very difficult for people without mental health issues as well.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:26 AM on August 31, 2016 [4 favorites]

A lot of what you're talking about fits under the idea of the Recovery Model or Movement -- the idea that one can lead a full and fulfilling life even with mental-health challenges.

You may want to Google (or ask at your volunteer job) for "peer-run support" or "consumer-led support." NAMI sometimes organizes such things, and (around here at least) Goodwill does as well. While there are certainly therapists and psychiatrists who are recovery-oriented, peer-run groups often foster that culture much more strongly -- traditional treatment can sometimes overly focus on preventing relapse rather moving toward goals. (And I know that the word "recovery" can be confusing because it sounds like AA or 12-Step stuff, but it's different from that, and focused on mental health.)
posted by lazuli at 5:45 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Health Canada's definition of Mental Illness, which I like, goes like this:

"Mental illnesses are characterized by alterations in thinking, mood or behaviour associated with significant distress and impaired functioning."

You are not broken. You need to realize that mental health and mental illness is not a division that can be marked by jumping over a fence, it is a huuuuuge spectrum. You can have a mental illness and flourish or founder, just like any person out there who does NOT have a mental illness: they also can flourish or founder.

If 1 in 5 people have a mental illness at some point in their lifetimes, you're not an anomaly.

Try to frame it this way: focus on living a fulfilling life that manages (not erases! Because we all struggle with these things!) alterations in thinking mood or behaviour. Don't think about your diagnosis: think about what you want, and how to get there. Diagnoses are just titles for a list of symptoms that have been observed in others. You look after you: what you require to live a fulfilling, flourishing life.

First: you have a therapist. You're looking at treatment. Look for supportive people. Look towards improving your physical well-being. Look at medication. Look at the recovery-oriented links above.

You're going to be okay, but be gentle with how you think of yourself and your illness.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:58 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oh, and here's an occupation for you to consider with your background: Cartographers and Photogrammetrists.
posted by mareli at 5:59 AM on August 31, 2016

First things first, NEVER compare yourself to others, it'll ALWAYS lead to some type of depression or crazy expectations.

You can have a wonderful life my man, all day everyday, you just have to not compare what others have (which very VERY often isn't as great as it looks) to what you DON'T have. You maximize YOUR opportunities by developing you because there is ONLY one of you and the world need(s) you because BAM! here you are! You have meaning and purpose...

Stay positive, everybody's negative these days, EVERYBODY....

Good luck
posted by TeachTheDead at 7:53 AM on August 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

"Mental illness" doesn't mean much on its own. Tons of people have mental illnesses and are successful (according to the metrics you mention above) despite them. Tons of people have mental illnesses that are totally debilitating and which prevent them from ever being able to live on their own, hold a job, or live what you describe as a "normal" life. And of course, tons of people have mental illnesses that color their lives and which have hampered their success in one way or another, but they struggle on regardless and generally feel their lives are well worth living even if they sometimes feel like their illness is holding them back (I consider myself to be in this camp).

It's kind of hard to give you specific advice without knowing more about what you have going on—I have my own set of experiences, but no way of knowing if they're even slightly relevant for you, since "mental illness" is such a broad category. It's like saying you have a "physical illness" and are unsure if you'll ever be able to succeed despite it. Do you have a cold, or lung cancer, or what? It's really that broad. If you want to ask the mods to post some details on your behalf, that would be really helpful. You can also MeMail me if you want and I'll do the same, while keeping your identity confidential.

The way you've written your question, it feels like maybe you decided your life was basically over once you got a diagnosis? If so, I challenge you to shed that way of thinking and to begin learning to cope. I know nothing about what your specific diagnosis is since you didn't put any details into the question but I will say that generally speaking, in addition to therapy and medication (as appropriate) it's important to make careful life choices. For instance, maybe—I don't know, I'm just throwing it out as an example—that janitorial job is actually a near-perfect fit for you. Maybe you really need something that's low-stress and which doesn't carry a lot of responsibility or require you to interact a lot with other people, and which you don't have to think about during your off-hours. Maybe you need to look for something with similar characteristics but which offers better pay and a little more prestige, rather than killing yourself seeking something that's at the very top of society's rather arbitrary achievement ladder. Then you could focus more on the rest of your life—which, let's be honest, includes most of the fun stuff—and on finding activities (and people) that are nourishing and healing for you, things that you enjoy and which make you feel good about yourself.

It really sounds like you're identifying with what you see as the negative aspects of yourself. That's bad for you, try to stop doing that. I currently live with my parents in my early 30s, and I've got a job that I don't care for, but I don't think of myself as "depressed, anxious guy with a crappy job who lives with his parents," I (try to) think of myself as "generous, intelligent, kind-hearted dude who's really into backpacking and kayaking, has a wonderful family, has some great friends, and who is really well-liked by those who know him." Both of those identities are equally accurate, but I know which one I'd rather wear around on a daily basis. You definitely have positive aspects as well, and you should strive to identify them and associate yourself with them mentally, rather than with the parts of your life that you don't care for as much. You know what I mean?

Stop comparing yourself to an externally-imposed standard of success. Take some time, let yourself be quiet, and listen to what you really want. Not many people are really happy living the success-at-all-costs lifestyle that's necessary if you want to climb to the top of the ladder. If "rich and fulfilling" is what you want, you need to look further than your job and your diagnosis. You need to start loving yourself and making decisions that are good for the self that you are and that you love, not the person you're currently telling yourself you should try to be. Start making decisions that are good for you. If you're in a rough spot mentally and financially, which it sounds like you are, it's going to take some time for you to get to where you really want to be—but honestly, if you talk to enough happy middle-aged folks you'll start to find that it's pretty unusual for people to be totally happy with their lives in their 20s or even 30s. It takes most people longer than that to really know themselves and build a life that suits them.

You need to think long term here, about building a life over the next 10-20 years that gets gradually better year by year. But you can start loving yourself right now, and you should work on that. If "rich and fulfilling" involves having good friends and a lover (which is totally fair) I think you'll find that that becomes much easier once you're a person who is mostly at peace with themselves and who mostly likes themselves. For that matter, the quality of people you'll attract to yourself once you're secure and happy about who you are (not necessarily where you are in life, just who you are) will be much better than if you're really insecure and down on yourself all the time. People who feel bad about themselves tend to attract users and losers. You want to attract other loving, happy people to yourself. You will find that they still have their own struggles—everyone does!—but even seeing that can be very affirming and reassuring.

Anyway, to wrap up: stop seeing yourself as a janitor with a mental illness and start seeing the good in yourself. Stop comparing your life to other people's—nobody is as untroubled as they look from outside, and most metrics of success are bullshit anyway. Pay more attention to who you are and what you want, and make a long-term plan to get there. Focus on loving yourself, doing things that are nourishing and good for you, and look for people who you really groove with to be your companions, not just anybody. And if you want more specific advice, contact the mods and ask them to post a comment on your behalf with more detail about your diagnosis and what it's meant for you.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:49 AM on August 31, 2016 [9 favorites]

If you are on Medicaid you probably qualify for a case manager. The case manager can help you find housing and learn independent living skills as needed. Having your own place can be a big boost towards feeling good. But I can't emphasize enough what Anticipation said above. No matter your living arrangements you can have a great life.
posted by SyraCarol at 11:04 AM on August 31, 2016

From the OP, by request:
My diagnosis is bipolar disorder. I was hospitalized several times in 2011 but thankfully have been out of the hospital since that time. I am just looking to gain some level of independence so that I can date and have friends, but it sounds like a lot of this I can work on without having to move out of the house. My attitude is not good, and I can't expect to attract good people into my life without first believing in myself. Thanks everyone for your time and encouragement.

This is what what "success" looks like for me: an independent lifestyle, good friends, and possibly a significant other, not necessarily a financially remunerative career with social prestige. By the way, I agree with Anticipation's thoughts about being a janitor. It's actually not so bad, apart from the lack of prestige: its very low stress, I don't have any work to do "after hours", or deal with a lot of social interaction if I don't want to. I do want to be more social, but I like work where that isn't necessarily REQUIRED in the position.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:02 PM on August 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'd suggest that you check out The Village, a program of the Mental Health Association of Los Angeles. Their offices are in Long Beach.

They pioneered the Recovery Model that folks have talked about above. They've de-emphasized the therapy part of the work in order to really work on vocational and career development for their clients. And they're excellent people too!

Even if you're not eligible to be treated there, try to connect with them. They have educational events where people can learn about this approach.
posted by jasper411 at 7:26 PM on August 31, 2016 [1 favorite]

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